The government wants to keep us begging for hours

The government wants to keep us begging for hours

Reprinted from The Daily Blog

By Mike Treen, National Director, Unite Union

The government’s proposals around zero hour contracts are designed to make them legal!

The Minister responsible Michael Woodhouse should become the object of protests around the country until he rewrites the bill to meet the repeated promises he has made to end zero hours contracts.

We need to label Woodhouse and his government dishonest liars and cheats.

Woodhouse made promises to media earlier this year to end zero hours contracts. 

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the draft legislation this week.

The MBIE website is upfront. It says that with the new law “The employer and the employee do not have to agree on set hours if both prefer flexibility.”

Telling a young, unemployed, unskilled worker that they can make a choice to “prefer flexibility” when accepting a job with a fast food giant is a lie and Woodhouse knows it.

This was the lie the fast food companies have been telling workers for the last few decades. Even after we got collective agreements with most companies a decade ago we found improved security around rostered hours was the hardest thing to get. Every time we demanded “secure hours and secure shifts” we were told by the companies that “their” employees preferred flexibility.

The company knew that the “flexibility” they had to roster any hours they wanted meant the could use the roster to bully and intimidate staff. They knew they could use the threat to reduce hours from week to week as a tool to control workers. Managers knew they could use rosters to punish workers if the stood up for their rights, including legal or contractual rights to breaks or sick leave.



When we decided to take on the companies in a fight this year to end this abusive regime we got huge support and engagement from our members.

When we named and shamed the fast food companies as “zero hour” employers we got huge public support. Nearly every family in New Zealand has a relative on these sorts of contracts and knew immediately what we were talking about. The lies of the company around “flexibility” and “choice” fell on deaf ears.

Under the proposed law a company can offer workers a zero hour contract with a requirement that they be available for work so long as they pay some compensation for being available. But there is no level of compensation provided for so it could be as little as a $1 a week. And the law allows for the compensation to be part of a salary if the worker is a salaried worker. Again “compensation” in these circumstances would be a fiction.

The new law also allows companies to have a minimum number of agreed hours and then contract the worker to be available for any extra hours. Very generously the law says that if there is no availability clause with compensation then the worker can refuse extra work and an employer must not treat a worker adversely for doing so.

But this is a joke. Every worker on a zero hour or minimum hour contract knows that if they refuse a shift that is offered – even if it is their right as it was in many of our collective agreements – the worker can still be punished by not being offered extra hours.

Keeping workers begging for hours and ready to jump whenever asked is the essence of the zero hour or minimum hours contract system.

The proposed law also has a requirement to pay compensation if there is a late cancellation of a shift. But this is worse that the current situation. Under our current law if a worker has agreed to work a shift and are ready to work then they have fulfilled their side of the contract and must be paid.

Fast food companies tried to get around this by getting the workers “agreement” not to come in or go home early – but the worker couldn’t be forced to. Of course if you did refuse under the zero hour regime you risked being rostered down the following week. But once we got collective agreements this was an area where the union was able to make significant improvements.

The new law allows a company to have a “compensation clause” for a cancelled shift that is less than what they would have earned and therefore less than what current law prescribes!

The new law legalising zero hours must be opposed by the whole labour movement.

I believe that the government is vulnerable on this issue. Whatever the initial intention of Woodhouse and his advisers it is clear that what has come back from Cabinet is so watered down as to be less than useless. They law is a danger to workers and will legitimise practises that they government had promised to end.

The government is making a law that will will put many workers into a weaker position than they currently are. It will be harder for workers to defend their legal or contractual rights. It will be harder to resist sexual harassment or racial abuse. It will be harder to protect our health and safety. It will lead to more not fewer injuries at work. It will make it harder to navigate the boundaries between work and welfare.

The government now needs to be named and shamed as an enabler of zero hour contracts. We need to force them to radically change the law in ways that will end zero hour contracts like they have promised top do.

The only way to end zero hour contracts is the way we have done it in the fast food industry.

All new employees must have a set number of hours guaranteed in the contracts.

In addition, the number of hours guaranteed must be able to improve over time if the company has more work available.

If additional hours of work are available then existing workers must be able to access those hours until they have reached the optimum level they need. To ensure this happens employers must be compelled to offer available hours to existing staff before new staff are hired.

2015 was the year we ended zero hour contracts in the fast food industry. We must make it the year we do so in law as well. That is what the people want. That is what the government promised. This is what they must be forced to do. Exposing their lies is only the start.